How The Video Universe Took Over Our Lives

“From Arcade Games to Nintendo Switch,” Newsweek published this story under the headline of “Zip! Zap! Video Games are back!” on March 14, 1988. In light of Nintendo’s release of the Nintendo Switch earlier this year, Newsweek is republishing the story.

August 25, 2017 

Beware. You are about to enter the murderous Battlezone . . . The maddening Pac-Man maze . . . The menacing Gorfian galaxy. Within one-third of a second, the cannons will rumble . . . The monsters will pounce . . . The robots will open fire. The new music of the spheres will resound: ka-boom, c-r-r-unch, bleep-blip. Your tank, your hero or your spaceship will disintegrate unless you make the right maneuvers. Even so, the bad guys will win–sooner or later. And you stand to lose not only your quarters but your very will to leave.

Greetings from the brave new universe of video games. Faster than a leaping laser, the video invaders have conquered pop culture like no force since television itself. A decade ago, the digital games had barely begun to beep; now they’ve boomed into a $5 billion obsession that’s bigger financially than movies or records. Would-be star warriors plot strategies and pulverize aliens on campus, at home and in old pinball haunts–from Broadway’s Playland to the Blanca Oasis Drugstore in Sierra Blanca, Texas (population: 750). Like pinball wizards and pool sharks before them, most videologues are teenage boys–but their pinstriped elders and a few intrepid females are also pinging happily away. There’s even an otherworldly series: the finals of the first International Asteroids Tournament will be held in Washington this weekend.

For all their winning ways, video games have been bombarded by controversy. Critics contend that they squander allowances and study time, glorify violence and encourage everything from compulsive gambling to tendinitis (Space Invaders wrist). Taking a cue from the pool-troubled elders of the mythical River City, communities from Snellville, Ga., to Boston have recently banned arcades or restricted adolescent access; one legal challenge to the ordinances will be heard by the Supreme Court this week. Boosters counter that video gaming is helpful as well as fun: it speeds eye-hand coordination, sharpens driving and math skills and shields against technological future shock. “Kids are becoming masters of the computer,” says Bob Doyle, a Cambridge, Mass., astrophysicist who designs electronic games. “When most grownups talk about computers, they fear the machines will dominate and displace. But these kids are learning to live and play with intelligent machines.”

To most devoted vidkids, the play’s the thing. “It’s challenge to myself, and when I get a high score, I feel happy,” exults Chris Edwards, a ten-year-old Spectar expert from New York’s Bronx, who grew so addicted to his game that he filched quarters from his mother’s handbag. Other regulars praise the emotional rescue. “It can take the anger out of you,” says Steve Marmel, 16, of Lincoln wood, Ill., who practices his spacecraft every day and is a Midwest video-tournament champ. “Rather than blowing up at my history teacher, I can take it out on Asteroids.” Still, other players cite the chance for nonathletes to show off–or to assuage loneliness. “This is my world–it stinks, doesn’t it?” says Jacky Hughes, 17, a self-described Times Square drifter who can shine in the Broadway arcades. “When you start to think you’re a loser, you come here and get 4,000 at Space Invaders, and you ain’t a loser anymore.”

The video universe divides into three groups of games. Currently the most popular are coin-operated consoles for arcades. Most of these machines are equipped with 19-inch screens and amazing effects: the disembodied Pac-Man, for example, gobbles monsters in a Technicolor labyrinth to calliope-like toots. Some of the most stellar games are being reproduced as hand-held toys. And many arcade hits have been translated into cassettes (between $25 and $40 each) that can be played through an adapter (between $150 and $300) on an ordinary television set–or even on a home computer. Financial analysts consider the home market to be a largely untapped trove. In the past year, the number of U.S. homes equipped to play video games has nearly quadrupled from 2 percent to almost 8 percent That leaves 74 million homes with TV sets to invade.

If the home is where the future lies, right now the heart of the video ethos throbs in the colorful, cacophonous arcades. Some are souped-up pinball parlors, like Atlanta’s Gold Mine, or reformed strip joints, like Boston’s Teddy Bear. “The arcades are addictive; the lights, the sound–that all makes it womblike,” says psychologist Mitchell Robin of New York’s New School. “Every generation needs a refuge, and at least in this one, the kids can learn about accomplishment.” And if these lessons–at a quarter a throw–turn out to be expensive, that’s not such a bad thing, argues Dick Sogn, whose glossy Westworld arcade near the UCLA campus in Los Angeles boasts a twenty-minute waiting line on Saturday nights. “There isn’t a single kid who leaves here with enough money to go out and buy dope,” says Sogn.

Arcadians are overwhelmingly male (90 percent) and predominantly teenage (80 percent), according to industry estimates. (Nine out of every ten teenagers have probably tried an arcade game at least once.) Many girls seem to shun the arcades, because of their unsavory reputation and because of the predominance of martial games. But the crowds are surprisingly cosmopolitan. “Look at all these people together–blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Chinese,” says Martha Abrams, 18, a regular at the Teddy Bear. “This is probably the one place in Boston where there are no hassles about race.”

Not all the players are young. On one recent weekday afternoon at the Teddy Bear, six insurance auditors huddled self-consciously around a Polaris game. “We all have a college education, you know,” blurted Kevin Gorham. Aptitude, however, seems to decrease with age. “You see this guy come in with his briefcase and three-piece suit and stand next to a kid 3 1/2 feet tall. The kid’s as cool as can be, but the businessman’s so nervous he’s shuffling around, working up a sweat,” says Teddy Bear proprietor George Tecce.

The actual video contest requires both endurance and strategy. Fifteen-year-old Steven Juraszek of Arlington Heights, Ill., last month racked up a record of nearly 16 million points at Defenders–in sixteen hours and 34 minutes of uninterrupted play for a quarter. “The kid must have a bladder the size of Connecticut,” marveled James Sanders, owner of the One Step Beyond arcade, who called Steven’s mother to tell her where he was and stayed open all night to accommodate his streak. Using the skimpy instructions printed on the games, the novice is lucky to survive for more than a minute. Beginners are advised to spend twenty minutes or so kibitzing. Professional help is also at hand: videonaut Ray Giguette of Los Angeles has written a $2.50 “How to Win” guide to the top ten games, which has sold 10,000 copies. And Ken Uston–a card-counter who has been barred from most blackjack tables–has just finished a book called “Mastering Pac-Man.”

Even movie celebrities have been captivated. Director Steven Spielberg says that he and actor Richard Dreyfuss turned on to the video games when they were filming “Jaws” on Martha’s Vineyard seven years ago. Now Spielberg keeps eight arcade-style consoles (costing $2,000 to $4,000 apiece) in his home and six more humming on the set. ” When you see all the quarters dropped into the slots in every city and town, you know this is a runaway success–bigger than disco, with stronger legs,” he says, lapsing into movieland lingo for a blockbuster. “I may be in the wrong business.”

Nobody scores higher on video games than their manufacturers. The leader is Atari, which produced the Java man of video games, Pong, in 1972 and subsequently clicked with the three-dimensional Battlezone and last year’s hyper hit, Asteroids. Revenues doubled last year to $415 million; this year the Atari division is expected to provide one-third of all operating income for its giant parent, Warner Amex Communications. In second place is the Bally Corp., whose Midway Division holds licenses for two Japanese-created games$-this year’s sizzling success, Pac-Man, and the all-time champ, Space Invaders. Bally, the world’s largest slot-machine, and pinball maker, also owns 250 arcades. Its video sales doubled last year, to more than $130 million. Between them, the two video titans rule about 80 percent of the coin-operated market.

New challengers, however, are springing up as swiftly as Assuch Japanese contenders as Nintendo, which produces a current smash called Donkey Kong. Inevitably, pirates are active in the trade. The U.S. International Trade Commission, which ordinarily deals with such weighty subjects as the importation of automobiles, recently denied entry to 21 separate foreign rip-offs of Bally’s copyrighted Galaxian. Atari is suing two neighboring game firms in northern California that were founded by former employees, charging them in effect with concept-napping.

Fresh ideas are at a premium in this volatile business, where a game’s life span usually runs only six months to a year. “All games seem to do well at first,” says Bally chairman Robert Mullane. “But it’s longevity that counts, and that’s hard to measure in advance,” Mullane admits that he was skeptical about the prospects for Pac-Man. Now 250 Bally engineers and designers are searching furiously for Pac-Man’s successor. Their best bet seems to be Tron, pegged to a Walt Disney film that will be released next summer; suitably enough, it involves a computer programmer who gets trapped in his machine.

Every company hopes for an irresistible “hook” to capture consumers. “You want to develop a healthy level of frustration,” says Lyle Rains, a vice president of engineering at Atari, who delivered Asteroids. “You want the player to say, “Gee, if I put another quarter in, I might do better’.” Their quarters also support technological research that finds its way into uses ranging from toasters to medical scanners. The video-games industry is not only the principal customer for the microprocessor chips that have so advanced computing capability, but its researchers have made significant break-throughs that permit multiple colors, realistic characters and infinite movements to be programmed. It takes both technology and imagination to create the games. Ideas are born “at home, in dreams, and over beers,” says Atari programmer Ed Logg, who also worked on Asteroids. The company maintains a master list of potential projects that are periodically brainstormed. Often a lackluster game will lie around for months until someone suggests interesting new sounds or graphics$-such as the extra carnivorous creatures that were added to the trendy new Centipedes. Then the game may be programmed, prototyped and produced, a process that takes from three months to a year. Most Atarians are computer junkies who are delighted to “test” new games in the company’s free arcade. Other firms go so far as to actually “sneak preview” games in public, videotaping player reactions.

When a game strikes it rich, outsiders also turn a tidy profit. Most machines are sold to distributors, who lease them to the kets for 50 percent of the gross revenue. The average income per machine runs between $200 and $800 a week, depending on location. “When you get your first check, you can’t believe it’s that big,” marvels Dick Clifton, co-owner of Fitzgerald’s pub in downtown Atlanta, where the once despised machines now generate so much money that a plush Victori a parlor, formerly reserved for private parties, has been turned over to two Pac-Mans.

Toy manufacturers and retailers are cashing in, too. Asteroid and Space Invaders cartridges and hand-held Pac-Man games are leaving the stores almost as fast as they come in; Coleco Industries promises a $50 table-model PacMan for January. The biggest problem for many stores, on the eve of the Christmas rush, is trying to get enough games through a haphazard distribution system.

What may become the most lucrative video market is the home, Game units that attach to TV sets have been available for nearly ten years, but often seemed boring in comparison to the arcade classics. Lately, improved technology and a rivalry between Atari and Mattel, Inc., have made the home versions far more attractive.

While the home games still can’t match the intricacy of their arcade cousins, they do offer something different. Almost all arcade games pit human against machine, but at home two people can go head-to-head. In Mattel’s baseball, for example, one player fields what the other one hits; the computer merely umpires. Mattel, the progenitor of the Barbie Doll dynasty, has put more than twenty game cassettes on the market since it introduced its sophisticated Intellivision last spring. Atari, which was first in the home market–and still controls about 80 percent of it–retaliated to the challenge with more competitive sports games; it also holds home rights to most of the biggest arcade games, including Bally’s Pac-Man, Bally, which dropped out of the home-game business in 1977, is now scrambling to get back in. “These are not toys; this is family entertainment,” says Michael Moone, president of Atari’s consumer division. “Eventually, people will want them like they wanted a television set.”

Like television itself, video games have aroused passionate denunciations. In Snellville, Ga., near Atlanta, the town council evicted the machines last summer from the Gwinnett Shopette. “Kids don’t know when to stop,” explained Councilman S. W. Odum. “They’re putting their grass-cutting money in it when they could be buying ice cream or something.” But the store’s owner is challenging the ordinance this week in Gwinnett County court–and teenage Snellvillians are bicycling into the next county to play. Other communities, rather than banishing the games, have prohibited teenagers from playing; the Supreme Court will rule on the Mesquite, Texas, version of such an age barrier. No games have been banned in Boston, but arcades were recently required to demand chaperones before admitting youngsters under 14 during school hours and at night.

The effects of the games on children have yet to be gauged, but some unsettling questions are being raised. Gamblers’ Anonymous discourages video-gaming on the theory that compulsions can begin in children as young as 10. “I guarantee it will become a problem,” says spokesman Dave S. Some psychiatrists are already seeing game-fixated youngsters. Dr. Nicholas Pott, who treats two such patients at a clinic at North General-Joint Disease Hospital in New York, says disturbed youths may dodge reality and human contacts as well as meteorites. The hospital director, Dr. Hal Fishkin, objects to the repeated kill-or-be-killed theme. “We don’t need more fodder for the violence mill,” he says. Others worry about subliminal messages that the medium may transmit. “The more you can titillate your emotions, the less tolerant and patient you are going to be for things that don’t deliver as fast,” says Fred Williams, professor of communications at the University of Southern California.

Precisely because they can provide instant gratification, video games have proven useful in breaking through to mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed children. Games can offer encouragement to the nonhandicapped as well, especially during adolescence. “A lot of kids who are good at this are not good at other things,” says sociologist Sherry Turkle of MIT. “This mastery experience is significant.”

Some educators believe that the games help the average youngster develop fundamental academic and practical skills. Most important are computer literacy according in Woodside, Calif. “We have a whole generation growing up who have no problem at all approaching the machine,” Templin says. “They could become the haves,” Templin suggests that because game players learn to focus on an entire screen full of blipblapping, flying objects, they will become faster readers–and probably safer drivers and baseball sluggers besides. The most enthusiastic video supporters insist that the strategies and geometric patterns of the games give painless instructions in such disciplines as logic, trigonometry, and physics. But is it teaching, or just play? When Bob Albrecht, a computer programmer from Menlo Park, Calif., brags that his son is absorbing “college mathematics” from Asteroids, the 13-year-old–known as “Karl the Cat” in competitive circles-quickly corrects him. “I ‘m just having fun,” Karl shrugs.

Still, the Defense Department, which must train a large number of refugees from arcades, seems convinced. At Fort Eustis, near Williamsburg, Va., recruits play a version of Battlezone that targets realistic silhouettes of enemy y tanks, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers. Atari consultants also helped the Army create a tabletop tank gunnery game all its own: the MK-60, which carries a $15,000 price tag and 30 complex programs. “It’s important to have training devices that don’t appear so naturally to be training devices,” says Maj. Jack Thorpe of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But if video games go government issue, can they keep their extraterrestrial glow? Rebellion, as well as rockets, pulls vidkids to the arcades; if the games become commonplace and respectable, Pac-Maniacs may seek other diversions. Familiarity killed disco, after all, and nonelectronic pinball finally gave in to new technology. The video games will probably prove tougher to tilt than pinball. “We are moving away from passive entertainment, where you sit in front of a TV set and do nothing,” predicts Nolan Bushnell, the engineer who detonated the video explosion by perpetrating Pong and founding Atari. “We’re headed for active entertainment, where the screen climbs out at you so you can participate.” If video hangouts lose their outlaw appeal, ever smarter, sleeker games will beckon from the living room. Already, game-makers are fantasizing hookups through cable and telephone that can make every home its arcade.

Take cover. Qik has arrived … Make Trax is coming … Tron is on his way. The video invaders have only begun to fight, and they give no quarter.


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